Make a Difference

Thoughts on Criminology

I have had a long-standing interest in justice and criminology. This has been expressed in reading and conversation, and in my roles as a police and emergency services chaplain, and as a prison visitor. I am also fortunate to have a spectacularly brainy sister who is a research psychologist, and whose area of interest is the prompting/motivating/enabling factors for criminal behaviour, and the prediction and prevention of recidivism.

This year I begin formal studies in criminology at Griffith University, Australia’s most highly rated university for criminology and justice studies.

I have done some preliminary reading: a popular Australian textbook – Crime and Criminology (White, Haines, Asquith 7th Ed 2023), Realist Criminology (Matthews, 2014), Rehabilitation (Ward and Maruna 2007), Selected articles from the Handbook of Crime Prevention and Community Safety (ed Nick Tilley 2005), Conservative Criminology (Wright and DeLisi 2016), More God, Less Crime (Johnson 2011), Criminology: A Very Short Introduction (Newburn 2018), and multiple articles on the causes of crime, as well as rehabilitation, victim impact, and recidivism. I am currently working through the Palgrave Handbook of Australian and New Zealand Criminology, Crime and Justice (Deckert and Sarre, eds, 2017). Except for the first and last, possibly none of these would be chosen as suitable texts by academic criminologists in Australia, but I have tried to give myself a balanced range of viewpoints.

Criminology is not a discipline in its own right. There is no specific and definable body of knowledge, as there is in medicine or geology. Nor is there a set of finely honed skills, as there is in physiotherapy or welding. Instead, criminology is a multi-disciplinary investigation of a fairly narrow group of questions and issues. These include:

  • What is crime?
  • What causes crime?
  • Who commits crime and why?
  • What is the impact of crime on victims?
  • What is the impact of crime on communities?
  • How should society respond to crime?
  • an crime be prevented? How?
  • Can incarcerated offenders be rehabilitated? If so, what works?

These are worthwhile questions. The cost of crime in Australia is horrendous. Taking into account direct loss of property through theft or damage, the cost of policing, the judiciary, corrections, the cost of security and insurance, and loss of time at work, the financial cost is about $5,000 per year for every man, woman and child in Australia. That is a huge brake on the economy. In addition, and just as importantly, there is the personal and emotional impact of crime on victims, families and communities.

By providing clear, evidence-based answers to the questions above, criminologists could make a significant contribution to building a safer and more prosperous society. There is certainly some interesting research and reporting going on. See, for example, this list of featured articles from the British Journal of Criminology, all of which are free to read:

The Journal of Criminology, which, while international in scope, focuses on Australian and New Zealand research, features some similarly useful work:

However, while some worthwhile studies are being done, criminologists in these journals are mostly talking to each other. That is the case for most professional journals. The difference in criminology is that there does not seem to be a lot of listening.

Where criminologists respond to books or papers, they frequently seem to do so by creating a parody version of views they do not hold, and then demolishing the parody they have created. This may be easy and amusing, but it does not contribute to the growth of knowledge, and encourages others; policy-makers and corrective services workers, for example, and perhaps more critical new students like myself, to doubt the practical value of academic criminology.

As an example, the first book I mentioned, Crime and Criminology, takes a dim view of anything that could be called a conservative outlook. Conservatives, we are told, believe the function of law and politics to be the preservation of the status quo (pg 10), divide society into them – bad people, and us – virtuous people (pg 136), believe humans are inherently evil, or at least irreparably flawed, justifying severe punishments on those who misbehave, stir people into a “moral panic” in order to implement stricter punishment of offenders (pg 91),  and pay little or no attention to social causes of crime and differences in background or ability of offenders.

Gosh, what a scurrilous bunch those conservatives are. Not to mention holding views like climate change denial, which should be made a crime (pg 109). I will forego discussing the nature of societies which criminalise opinions they do not like.

Perhaps this is an opportune moment to mention that the only political party I have ever belonged to was the Socialist Workers’ Party, a Trotskyite group whose values I shared quite fervently when at university in my early twenties. Since then I have had friends in every major political party, and in every major religion represented in Australia. I have shaken hands with Peter Lewis, whom I considered a good friend, with Meg Lees, Alexander Downer, Peter Beatty and with Andrew Bolt, and had conversations with all of them and many others. I know a lot of conservatives. I know nobody who holds the beliefs ascribed to them by White, Haines and Asquith.

Conservatives do not believe the function of law and politics to be the maintenance of the status quo. Many of them, as I do, have friends or family members who have been imprisoned, and do not remotely divide the world into good people like us, and criminals who deserve what they get. They do not believe legitimate concern about crime, especially in poorer, higher crime areas, should simply written off as “moral panic.” While holding firmly to the view that people are responsible for their own moral choices, they also take seriously the role of financial hardship, poor parenting, resentment, unemployment, drug abuse, and other factors which increase the likelihood of crime, try to understand and ameliorate them, and maintain the right of the judiciary to take circumstances and personal differences into account in sentencing.

Conservatives, of course, are not immune from mistakes, in criminology or any other policy area. GK Chesterton, one of my favourite authors, wrote (Illustrated London News, 19 April 1924): “The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.”

I have pointed out in other circumstances that if you need to misrepresent your opponents’ beliefs in order to make your point, this is a clear indicator that you don’t have a point to make. The purpose of debate and discussion, whether at home, in Parliament, or in academia, should always be to find the truth, and having found it, or as close an approximation as we can humanly obtain, to use that truth as the basis for policy. This means genuinely listening, stating your opponents’ views clearly and fairly, and having positive regard even for people with whom you disagree vehemently.

Criminology is about real life, real people, real costs, and real harm. With fair and open discussion, it can also be about real hope.

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